Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite: A Dark Historical Comedy for Our Time
The idle classes have been embarrassing themselves in song long before the Strokes or Bon Iver ever mumbled a fractured lyric or two into their phones’ memo banks. Xavier Giannoli‘s hilariously snarky black comedy Marguerite, now showing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre, 4 W 58th St., explores that dynamic in a Roaring 20s setting, something akin to the Coen Brothers in French.
The film draws its inspiration from Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite whose childhood success as a pianist was counterbalanced, grotesquely, by her utter ineptitude as a wannabe opera singer. Where Jenkins largely performed for her fellow one-tenth-of-one-percenters at society functions, Giannoli’s fictional Marguerite Dumont (a spot-on, beaming, sincerely delusional Catherine Frot) warbles, off-key to her special cercle, who only tolerate her since she’s the one footing the tab for lavish soirées at her château.
Enter music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide, in a role that never gets the chance to resolve a couple of potentially tasty subplots), vaulting over the castle wall with his wingman in tow. Realizing that Marguerite is missing something upstairs and that she could be played for her money, Beaumont writes a fawning review. Spurred by this unexpected critical reaction – and then by several which are not exactly glowing – Marguerite fixates on putting on her first big public performance. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband (a devastatingly deadpan Andre Marcot) is equally dead set against further public embarrassment, resorting to one subterfuge after another.
To further complicate matters, Beaumont hooks her up with a has-been operatic tenor ( Michel Fau, in a hilariously foulmouthed, louche performance) as a vocal coach. At this point, it looks like he and the grifters in his entourage are actually going to get Marguerite to pull together a set and get through it in front of a real audience. Even her husband grudgingly admits that she’s not as bad as she was when she first fancied herself a diva.
It’s here that Giannoli’s satire kicks into high gear. You want to root for Marguerite, the outsider who only lives for her art, mangled though it might be. But every time she tries to justify her hobby-gone-wild, she falls flat on her face. She may play the wide-eyed innocent, but underneath she’s a bored dillettante and a classist pig. Likewise, as hubby’s attempts at sabotage become more and more farcical, it becomes clear that he’s not about to sacrifice any business scheme or schmoozing to placate his increasingly erratic wife.
Giannolli, who both wrote and directed, faithfully evokes both an early 1920s Surrealist demimonde – and its hijinks – as well as a post-WWI French upper crust trying to maintain a shaken stolidity. Snide one-liners fly fast and furious in period-perfect slang (which, sadly, the English subtitles often don’t come close to capturing). The ending is sudden and unexpected, and while not foreshadowed, makes sense considering Giannoli’s worldview, although the implication that Jenkins/Marguerite wouldn’t have made such a spectacle of herself if her husband had been more attentive doesn’t hold water, at least here. Ultimately, karma is a bitch: payback is even more of one.